The makers of Battlefield return to their cult classic first person platformer, with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, but is this prequel any more than just a good idea?
2008’s Mirror’s Edge was what seemed to be a flawed masterpiece. The idea of a first person platformer with beautifully minimalistic art design, where you parkour across the rooftops of a future dystopia, sounds like it would be amazing. And at times it was, but problems with level design and combat meant it was also a very flawed experienced. Everyone, including publisher EA and developer DICE, felt there was a great game in there, waiting to be chiselled out; so the question now is whether this is the classic it always should have been…
Catalyst is a prequel to the first game, that doesn’t require you to have played the original at all. Not that it makes much difference though, as the premise of the two is essentially identical. You play as Faith, a young woman with a traumatic past who acts as a ‘runner’ – part courier and part revolutionary.
Circumventing a dystopian surveillance society, by passing along messages and objects hand-to-hand, is as good a reason as any to justify the game’s unlikely setting. But while the stark visuals also neatly reflect the cold, uncaring society of the game world, the actual plot is still tragically uninteresting. Catalyst obviously wants to recall the works of Orwell and Huxley, but even by mixing them together with modern social media trends it has nothing really profound to say about anything.
That’s hardly unusual for a video game though, and Catalyst is at least sensible enough not to spend too much time on its predictable plot and dull characters. Instead it gets you straight out onto the rooftops, leaping and running around with exhilarating ease.
There are many reasons why there are so few other first person platformers, the lack of peripheral vision and the inability to see where your feet are being the most obvious. But Catalyst blithely ignores these concerns, hiding them beneath some clever level design, a wider than usual field of view, and a generous margin for error that somehow never seems as obvious as it should.
And it works extremely well. The basic controls are pleasingly straightforward (one shoulder button to jump and move up, another to duck down) and you never feel cheated by a mistimed jump or sudden change in direction. Although if there is a flaw it’s that the game never feels that fast, a problem resulting from the fact that you already move unnaturally fast in first person games and there’s only so far Catalyst can go before turning Faith into The Flash.
If you do keep your speed up you’re immune to bullets, and an optional on-screen indicator always directs you along a sub-optimal route if you have a fear of getting lost. There are almost always alternate routes though, especially for sub quests.
And those upset at early reports that you have to unlock Faith’s full set of skills needn’t worry, as relatively few are kept from you and they’re all very quickly obtained if you want them – so quickly in fact that it makes the whole levelling system seem rather pointless.
Interior sections now work much better than the first game, and although some may still not like them, because they tend to be slower-paced, we enjoyed the more puzzle-orientated type of level design. It’s also where the most striking visuals can be found, with a couple of art museums that recall the entirely abstract designs of the original’s DLC.
Unlike the first game, Catalyst takes place in an open world environment that you’re free to explore as you will. Indeed, you’re encouraged to create your own routes and challenges for other online players to compete against, in lieu of any traditional multiplayer options.
The game map is also littered with Ubisoft style icons offering all manner of other side quests, time trials, and challenges. Although many of these do serious damage to the game’s sense of authenticity, as mannequin-like quest givers stand in place 24 hours a day, giving out nonsensical requests about delivering parcels within arbitrary time limits.
Catalyst has a serious problem in finding a sensible context for its gameplay, and the question of how much that bothers you is central to how much you’ll enjoy the game. But another fundamental issue is that it’s trying to present such a unique and exciting concept in such a purposefully middle-of-the-road manner. The story really needed to be either more serious or more satirical, or just about anything to give it some real personality. Or perhaps it could’ve ditched the pretence of storytelling entirely and painted itself as some kind of sports game – a sort of on-foot version of WipEout.
There are also issues with the graphics, with Catalyst being easily the worst looking Frostbite game of recent years. The art design is fantastic but there’s a serious problem with textures not loading in properly (and the sound dropping out), and the faces for secondary characters are awful. Not that there are many other people, since the game’s city feels more like a ghost town. You do occasionally pass ordinary citizens but they never express outrage that you’re running through their house or have just ruined their construction yard.
Catalyst also has the worst ragdoll physics we’ve seen in years. This comes into play during combat, where, pleasingly, you only use your fists and feet, and not a gun. The most effective tactic is to kick an enemy into an obstacle, but watching as hapless guards tip over desks like upended shop dummies looks ridiculous. Even worse is when they belatedly decide they’re going to fall off a balcony, despite initially being nowhere near it, in what looks like something out of The Naked Gun.
The basics of the combat are actually fine, but there’s no room within the game for them to evolve. This in turn emphasises the overriding problem with the whole franchise: that Mirror’s Edge is a great idea that, while well implemented in most aspects, never pushes itself far enough to become the classic you feel it should be. Whether it’ll get a third chance will depend on how well Catalyst sells, but DICE are going to need more than just faith if they ever hope to bring Mirror’s Edge to its full potential.
In Short: A better game than the original, but it still suffers from many of the same problems – with desperately uninteresting storytelling and combat.
Pros: The first person platforming works extremely well and the art design is highly distinctive and impressive. Large, well-designed open world with plenty to see and do.
Cons: The story and characters are completely uninteresting and the setting lacks personality and dynamism. Simplistic combat and terrible ragdoll physics. Some graphical and audio bugs.